Last year, when industry weasels trumpeted “The Year of the Woman,” on the strength of the Morrisettes, the Harveys, the Osbournes, the Mitchells, et. al., and praised themselves for making room for women songwriters, musicians and producers, did you find yourself saying, “What’s wrong with this picture? What about the sistuhs? The NdegéOcellos, the Farrises, the St. Victors, the Des’Rees, the Ambersunshowers, the Skunk Anansies?” Like Malcolm X said, “If all of us are sitting at a table, are all of us diners? I’m not a diner until you let me dine.”
So this month we chatted with the Godmother of all musical sistuhs, Nona Hendryx. Arguably the musical brains behind Labelle, the prototype woman-funk ensemble, she’s had a distinctive career as a solo artist, songwriter, producer and advocate for things creative, cutting-edge and Black. She’s currently producing the first concert/seminar featuring poetry and music, called “Word: Life,” which will debut at Irving Plaza on February 8th. She’s got her own record label, “free records,” and two artists who’ll be releasing product. Nona’s living proof that the mercurial forces of jus divinum, racial politics and critical acclaim have no bearing on creativity.
BRC: What was the impetus for the Word: Life project?
Nona Hendryx: I got involved with an artist, Carl Hancock Rux, who is a poet. He’s a spoken word artist, but he was member of the Boys Choir of Harlem, so he has been involved in music. And I really just fell in love his writing, what he had to say, his performance, his presentation. So I started recording it and making an album with him and Mark Batson, who co-produced it with me. And looking at the record industry and at the market and thinking, “Well, I love it. Other people love it. There is this scene that’s emerging in Brooklyn and the Bronx, spoken word and poetry crossing over to hip-hop and R&B. How do you get the media, radio and all those people to allow it to become part of the mainstream, instead of just another sort of fringe genre?” And I was just brainstorming as to how can this to be nourished by the industry and therefore get it to people and then people can make the decision as to whether this is something they want or not. And that’s when I came up with the idea of galvanizing the different factions that are out there by having a seminar and concert a la New Music Seminar, CMJ, Gavin or SxSW.
BRC: How did you start putting the project together?
NH: We started in end of August, September. The idea was born, then we began looking for sponsors. We started with just the local artists, and we had some difficulty getting sponsorship, because they were not names that were known. So we began looking for people to see if they’d be interested in getting involved in this who had names, and that’s when people like The Last Poets, Branford Marsalis, Vernon Reid, Maya Angelou, Nikki Giovanni. Then we began to get a bit more interest from sponsors, although we don’t have all the sponsors we need, because we’re taking this on the road as a tour. [Performers at the Irving Plaza seminar and concert include BRC members Reid, Greg Tate, Tracie Morris, Bernie Worrell, as well as Chuck D., Amiri Baraka, Jeru Da Damaja, Reg E. Gaines, KRS-One, Lauryn Hill of the Fugees, Dana Bryant, Felipe Luciano and others.]
BRC: How familiar were you with this genre of work, prior to this project?
NH: Well, [Labelle] were on the album that Nikki Giovanni did, gospel music and poetry. Also we spent some time getting involved with The National Black Theater, a lot of the people who were considered either actor-slash-poet-slash-musicians like Oscar Brown, Melvin Van Peebles, Charlie Mingus, Last Poets, Gil Scott-Heron, Roy Ayers and people like that who did sort of the thing. I’ve known people who’ve been dealing in that for years, so it wasn’t anything foreign or new to me. But this is what has been called a resurgence. It’s emerging again. And naturally, I’ve always had an ear out for or been involved with people who were always pushing the envelope or what other people call the “fringe” of the mainstream of music. Working with people like Vernon Reid, Toshi Reagon, Bill Laswell. So it was nothing new.
BRC: Talk a little about the new label.
NH: I started my own label about eight months ago. That came from many years of dealing with record companies and going through some wonderful times and some difficult times in trying to have them understand what it is that I do, why I do it and how I do it. It’s called Free Records. Music equals freedom to me. When people are immersed in music, there’s a freedom that happens. Inhibitions drop. I’m looking to establish a Black alternative, and I don’t mean “alternative” music, I mean, a Black alternative. That’s the type of artist I’m looking for. They don’t have to be all “Black.” If they fit within the feeling of what I call “honest music,” then they’ll fit on Free Records.
BRC: Knowing the era that Labelle emerged from, where you had different styles of music interacting and different artistic disciplines interacting creating works that were greater than the sum of the parts, why do you think there’s so much categorizing and dichotomizing of the creative process?
NH: I think in every area of life that I’ve seen of like in the past 25-30 years has been this evolution throughout society to specialize. You don’t have the family doctor anymore. You have to go to the podiatrist, or an orthodontist or whatever. So throughout life the same thing happened, people specialized. Radio is one of the main areas that began to categorize. ‘KTU is going to be “dance” or “disco” as it was. Hot-97 was hip-hop and R&B. ‘NEW is rock. Whereas before that time, you heard all this music. MTV when it started, it was showing all kinds of music. Then they started specializing, with the “Yo! MTV Raps” section, the “120 Minutes” section, compartmentalizing people. You cannot do that. Eventually people want something else. Maybe one day a week , you’re into eating spaghetti. You don’t want to eat it forever and ever.
BRC: The survival mechanism for African-Americans has been our creativity, since the days of slavery. We have this tradition of self-created culture in order to get us from crisis period to the next. One would think that now during a decidedly difficult period of our modern history, now more than ever our creative survival instinct is needed. But it seems like it’s being stifled.
NH: Right now, because the band width of variety and creativity was narrowed over a period of time, that it’s very hard for a unique voice to come through. It’s so filled up with Xerox copies of what is successful. And in our communities, there is a fear of being different. That if we want to be a classical violinist and you’re a genius at it, but you may be bullied for being that or thought of as “not Black.” In ways, you don’t even know you’re being limited by your own community and therefore by yourself. We need to be supportive of each other and our abilities in what we have to present to the world, so that not only does it not get co-opted, but it doesn’t get squashed. I may get flak about this, but I think we’ve become our own oppressors. There’s a statement that Mahatma Ghandi made, “There is no oppression without consent or participation in false beliefs.”
BRC: A certain type of Black woman is allowed to succeed in this business. They bring their voice to the table and that’s it, maybe they contribute a few lyrics. They’re like window dressing. But Black women as songwriters, as producers, as musicians almost never seem to get brought into the mix. Why does it seem Black women are so far behind everybody else as far as being part of the creative process and getting props for it?
NH: We don’t have a strong enough voice and base for projecting that information. Ownership allows you to be self-directed. If we owned radio stations, if we owned more of the national international media, then we would have a stronger voice. But if you don’t have the vehicle upon which this needs to travel, then whoever owns the media is going to project what’s closest to their hearts. This is what I tell everyone. I cannot really sit and point the finger at someone else for not promoting me, when it is not near and dear to their heart. I have to gain access to the media in order to do this, or create it myself.